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God and Santa - tackling a silly argument

Childish beliefs? ANDY BANNISTER on why a popular atheist taunt simply doesn’t add up …

Childish beliefs? ANDY BANNISTER on why a popular atheist taunt simply doesn’t add up …

The other morning, I powered up my iPhone to be greeted by a tweet from an atheist friend:
“The only difference between god and Santa or the Tooth Fairy is that people don’t get slaughtered by believers in Santa or the Tooth Fairy.”

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard versions of this – it’s made not just by online sceptics, but even by supposedly serious-minded academics. Everybody’s favourite Oxford atheist, Richard Dawkins, wrote:

“Father Christmas and the Tooth Fairy are part of the charm of childhood. So is God. Some of us grow out of all three.”

When you think about it, this is a cunning argument. Using memorable imagery, it paints religious believers as childish, simplistic and infantile, saying with a sneer, “We can understand why you might think this, but don’t you think it’s time to grow up?”

Clever as it may sound, this is a classic example of an ad hominem fallacy – that’s when rather than critique an argument, you attack the person.

For example, I might say that Dawkins is wrong because he looks funny, smells of fish, and only writes books on atheism because he’s not respected as a scientist any more. See what I did there? I used ridicule and insult to dismiss the person, not address what he was saying.

The main problem with this is it’s terribly lazy: much easier to insult somebody’s looks, or accuse them of childishness, than to engage their arguments. Sneering “belief in God is like belief in Santa” doesn’t address the question, it just resorts to insult.

But there’s a second problem with this argument. I’ve long been fascinated how many Christians came to faith in Jesus Christ as adults, not because they were brainwashed into it by their parents. I often ask Christian audiences “Who here became a Christian after the age of 15?” and frequently more than half the hands shoot up.

I then follow up with “How many people here came to believe in Santa Claus as adults?” The point is obvious: belief in God is not like belief in Santa Claus, on any conceivable level.

As the West becomes increasingly secular, fewer and fewer people are being raised in Christian homes. But that doesn’t stop them finding faith – often in surprising ways. A great example is Peter Hitchens, brother of famous atheist Christopher Hitchens. Peter was 30 when he abandoned atheism and became a Christian (he wrote a book, The Rage Against God, about his journey), putting the lie to the idea that belief in God is like belief in Santa Claus.

That atheist argument is utterly destroyed by the stories of hundreds of millions of people like Peter who have become Christians over the years, including the tens of thousands becoming Christians every day in places like China or the Middle East – people who have had to think very seriously about their decision to follow Christ, as it comes at tremendous personal cost.

Given that it’s such a bad argument, why do Richard Dawkins and other atheists insist in comparing God and Santa? I suspect it may be because when you believe something deeply and passionately, there’s often a tendency to grab hold of any arguments that appear to support you, no matter how desperate.

After all, perhaps there’s a chance that your opponents might be right – and even entertaining that possibility is something that some atheists aren’t willing to permit. Better to do what fundamentalists always do: put your fingers in your ears and sing loudly. Maybe something cheerful: “Santa Claus is coming to town …”

  • Dr Andy Bannister is the Director of the Solas Centre for Public Christianity and a speaker with Ravi Zacharias International Ministries. He regularly addresses audiences of both Christians and those of all faiths and none on issues relating to faith and culture. Read a free chapter of his best-selling book, The Atheist Who Didn’t Exist (or: The Dreadful Consequences of Bad Arguments) at
  • You can also watch Andy address the Santa Claus Question in episode 49 of Short Answers to Big Questions.

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